When I saw the video of Jada Pinkett Smith advocating boycotting the Oscars, three thoughts came to mind:
1. I agree on the basis that the Academy (Oscar board) is biased and it’s perhaps worth investing effort into developing a new institution that acknowledges and celebrates the contributions of a diverse range of people. A panel, like the Academy, that is overwhelmingly dominated by white men who identify with and understand what it means to be ‘white and male’ will probably be more empathetic toward white males… even if they try to be fair. We can try to be objective, but the truth is that we’re often not. Our experience of life shades our understanding of others, even our appreciation of them, and often we’re simply better able to empathise with and appreciate the experiences of those who we feel similar to in some way. Maybe the Academy will never change, and a boycott may help transpose effort into a different, new endeavor that is more diverse at the core; an endeavor that may build prestige and benefit more folks over time.
2. …But I disagree on the basis that a new, more diverse structure may not necessarily achieve as much widespread acclaim and power as the old. If the Academy continues to be respected as ‘fair’ by many white people, then having non-white folks simply leave will rob many white folks of the opportunity to appreciate black greatness. Further, if we only have a situation where white people see one thing as great and fair to all, but it rarely or never acknowledges non-white folks, and if we have another situation where non-white folks see another thing as great and fair to all (assuming white-privilege doesn’t exist), but it never or rarely acknowledges white folks, then we’ll effectively be creating a situation where people increasingly reward themselves, fail to see eye to eye, slip further and further away from objectivity and more and more into their insular, segregated circles. If we’re to truly appreciate each other’s merit and greatness, we need to work toward powerful, prestigious systems that include diversity in decisions and awards and is respected by everyone. Part of the process of creating that ideal can involve fixing the already widely acclaimed rather than simply tearing it down and replacing it with something which only one group might acknowledge, or might fail.
3. …and it’s because of those two, seemingly opposing thoughts, that I have sometimes struggled a bit with the idea of being a student at Cambridge University. The University of Cambridge is a very, very old, English, university that is dominated by ‘rich’, ‘white’ and ‘male’ in various ways. It has the prestige and reputation of being one of the world’s top educational institutions. White, black, male, female, English, Trini, all other, in-between and more respect its accreditation. However, even with all her greatness and respect, succeeding in joining her ranks isn’t simply a fair process. When you are accepted to Cambridge University, the acceptance is a mark of one’s merit, but it’s also a mark of luck and privilege. I’ve been confronted before with the idea of moving ahead in academia here, post-Ph.D., and to be quite honest, I simply have no desire to even try. I’ve seen two young, white, male friends offered positions here after completing their PhDs and it’s extremely difficult for me to imagine that even if I had all the publications and achievements that they had, that I, a young, black woman, would even be considered for the job. I’ve never had a person of African descent as a lecturer in Cambridge during my MPhil or the PhD thus far, but at the UWI, in the Caribbean, I had 5 white lecturers. I’ve been a member of two female-student dominated departments at Cambridge (Psychology and Education), but the heads of both departments are men. I’ve seen a trajectory where the majority of students are female, and the higher up the ladder one goes, the ratio starts favouring men more and more. I know that I’m participating in a system that likely unfairly excluded many others like me, and whilst I reap the benefits of its prestige, I’m failing to invest in another institution that may privilege a more diverse group of people. On the other hand, I know that Cambridge University will probably retain its prestige for hundreds of years more, and it may be a long time before anyone who invests in newer, more diverse universities, will gain the respect, repute and power to change things. I know that my presence at Cambridge is perhaps a small step toward making things fairer and making that prestige more accessible to others in the future; just as the first female student here made it possible for me and others now. I, being here, am also an example that black girls can… and I might be the only example that a few white men see and can engage with in a meaningful way. My presence offers the type of meaningful engagement that can help some develop the type of empathy and understanding to allow them to more fairly judge other black girls when they are in positions to do so. My presence offers me the opportunity and the power to push for change from within.
This then brings me to the final point of the conundrum: should we abandon the old and start afresh, whilst knowing that there is a chance that the fresh will fail too or may not succeed quickly enough to ensure that everyone benefits from the change OR should we stick with trying to improve the tried and tested old, whilst knowing that in sticking with it there is a chance that our efforts to fix it and make it fairer might fail or may not succeed quickly enough to benefit everyone? Well, at the end of the day, I don’t really have an answer, except that I see benefit in both approaches… but I also see risk. In some ways it reminds me vaguely of the Hunger Games and the Capital, which admittedly is a bit of a drastic comparison: Katniss was able to inspire change outside, and change things and hearts from within because of her involvement with people in the Capital and the merit she earned from going to compete. Similarly, some folks were able to change things by leaving the Capital and/or sticking their fingers up at it. In the end, they worked together and created something new both by dismantling some of the old, and keeping some of it. Whether we fix the broken, or create something new, we’ll have to contend with the fact that there is a chance the system might fail, or that we’ll endure growing pains…and so perhaps, maybe it’s simply good enough to choose the avenue we personally think is the one we have a better chance of bringing about victory for all through.
[btw, the illustration is of my college at Cambridge Uni- Corpus Christi]
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